Congregation of historic black church looks to uncertain future

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credit Jordan Green
A work crew hauls off brick from what remains of the church.

by Jordan Green

After the city tears down one of its oldest black churches — a historic landmark on Washington Street — the congregation struggles to discern its future.   

Two of the three buildings in the Washington Street Historic District of High Point that are listed as historic properties on the National Register of Historic Places are now gone.

First, the Kilby Hotel collapsed during a storm last year. And now, as of Sept. 28, First Baptist Church is little more than an excavated basement and a few remaining bricks.

Double D Construction of Winston-Salem pushed the 108-year-old Gothic Revival-style sanctuary down in four hours with a John Deere Excavator, the culmination of a condemnation process initiated by the city and a reckoning by the congregation that they could not raise enough money to save the building.

William Penn High School is the last remaining property on the National Register of Historic Places on Washington Street, a commercial corridor that thrived as a center of the black community during the segregated Jim Crow era from roughly 1900 to 1965.

Glenn Chavis, a retired pharmaceutical sales rep who is regarded as the foremost historian of black High Point, remembered his Boy Scout troop meeting at First Baptist in the early 1950s. Back then, First Baptist and St. Mark Methodist Episcopal Church (now Mt. Zion Baptist Church), competed as the two most prominent black churches in High Point.

“Both churches were very involved in the community,” Chavis recalled. “We couldn’t go down to City Hall to ask for things like Halloween. Whites went there and got money for functions on Main Street; they had a ball. We couldn’t do that. It was up to the black churches and the black merchants on Washington Street. They were the ones that brought in the flatbed trucks so that we could have music. We walked up and down the street and had a ball.

“The ministers in the black community were very respected,” he continued. “Everybody knew them; they stayed in the community and they were very outspoken. They wore suits. The preachers and the teachers wore suits, and the women wore dresses. That’s who you wanted to be like. Most of the men in my community wore overalls and they worked hard. At First Baptist and St. Mark you could put on your Sunday best, and you went to worship with your God. That was something else.”

Burdell Knight, who now chairs the church’s trustee board, started attending First Baptist in about 1945. The Rev. William F. Elliott, the pastor at that time, was also the president of the High Point NAACP, and the church played a leading role in the civil rights movement.

“Most of the quote-unquote professionals — teachers and doctors — who were brought in during the 1920s and 1930s, a lot of those people went to First Baptist,” Knight said. “It kind of became a cultural center in the black community…. Anytime something was discussed that had impact on the black community, it was discussed in First Baptist.”

In 1960, the church became a center of strategizing for civil rights marches and sit-ins, according to the church’s application for the National Register of Deeds, which was prepared by Beth Keane in 2008. The Rev. Elton B. Cox and Dr. Otis Tillman organized students from William Penn High School, and several members of the congregation joined the demonstrations and went to jail. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. visited the church in 1966, according to Keane’s report. As an indication of the level of racial tension at the time, Knight said King’s visit was not publicized because of concerns for his safety, and the application reports that “a number of skirmishes between blacks and whites” took place at the gateway to the Washington Street district at Centennial Street.

Founded by an emancipated slave named the Rev. Harry Cowans, First Baptist is one of the oldest black congregations in the city.

Groups of Baptists and Methodists began meeting in 1869, alternating services in the same building, according History of the Negro in High Point, North Carolina, 1867-1950, a document compiled by the High Point Normal and Industrial Club that is on file at the library. First Baptist was organized there in 1871.

First Baptist in High Point was one of 50 churches that Cowans organized in North Carolina, according to Keane’s research. Born in Mocksville in 1810, Cowans served as a body servant to Gen. Joseph Johnston in the Confederate States Army. In 1866, following his emancipation, Cowans organized Dixonville Baptist Church in Salisbury, and Keane writes that the church leader was estimated to have baptized about 8,500 people.

The Romanesque-style brick sanctuary, later remodeled with a Gothic Revival-style façade, was the church’s second building when it was erected in 1907.

Knight said when the Rev. Michael Robinson, the current pastor, came to First Baptist in 2010, church leaders started talking about renovating the sanctuary. Architects and engineers brought in to assess the structure informed the congregation that the east wall was swaying. In 2012, the engineers declared that the sanctuary was unsafe, and members moved downstairs to the fellowship hall to worship. At a minimum, the church would have needed to spend $236,000, just to shore the wall up, Knight said.

“One of the first things we did was send out letters in High Point,” she said. “We had advisors; these were people who were very well known in the community. We still didn’t get any response. We were trying from 2012 right up to last year to save the building. We knew we couldn’t keep it. Even with some grants, we couldn’t raise enough money. We did everything except turn ourselves inside out.”

The congregation is now meeting down the street in the Ritz Theatre, and exploring the possibility of sharing a building with another church, Knight said. To carry on the kind of civic engagement that has always been important to First Baptist, Knight said members are looking to forge relationships with predominantly white congregations.

Knight said at first it was hard to come to grips with losing the building. The congregation had embraced a mantra of “I don’t think He’s brought us this far just to leave us here.”

“Our pastor is considered a change agent,” Knight said. “He is a visionary: He can see what we can’t see. We have to work towards his vision. We talked. We prayed. We fasted. Finally, he said, ‘Maybe God is answering our prayer by not doing anything. Maybe this church has come as far as it can come.’ In order for us to move and make changes — that’s one of the hardest things to do — sometimes in order to make the change, you have to purge what you have so that there is nothing left. This is a way for God to tell us that.

“Right now, we have to go outside the church walls,” Knight added. “We don’t have walls anymore. This is God’s way of making us reach out and minister to the people in the community.”

While the congregation has let go of the building, Knight said the church is committed to growing into a new life.

“We’re going to have a light on a hill again,” she said. “It may not be this hill, but it will be a light.

“We feel so emphatic about it,” she added. “Never forget. Never forget what it brought to us and what it gave us. And we want to hold onto that even from generation to generation.”

  • Frank Swanson

    A shame to see it go, but years of neglect by the owners resulted in its eventual demise. And… yes they were tax exempt in addition to the historic status for the building.